Kcab ti nur.
This month in Run It Back we’re heading to 1966 and focusing on three films. One is Daisies, Věra Chytilová’s genre-bending film which follows the adventures of two young women (Marie I and Marie II) who cause chaos for 75 minutes. Then we have Behind Every Good Man, a short documentary student film by Nikolai Ursin which gives a snapshot into the life of an unnamed Black trans woman in LA. Finally, we have Black Girl, a film about a young Senegalese woman who goes to France to work for a family that mistreats her, by the godfather of African film, Ousmane Sembene.
There’s so much to say about these women, but I kind of just want to see them meet for dinner. What if the fictional could move into the real for just one day in 1966? Would the Maries run off from the confines of the dinner table and enjoy a new world to destroy? Would Diouana and Every Good Man’s subject find solidarity in their alienation as Black women? Would Behind and the Daisies revel in their tenacity? Would the Maries help take revenge for Diouana’s eventual fate?
I know one word would be on all of their lips – freedom.
Freedom is one of those fundamental and recurring items in how we think about the world we live in and our place in it. There are few times where this was clearer than in 1966. Various countries were just about escaping formal colonialism. The civil rights and free love movements shook up culture and counter-culture. Pre-Stonewall radical activist groups like San Francisco’s “Vanguard” were developing to improve the material conditions of the most vulnerable queer people. The women in these films embody the spirit of that time in their own ways.
The protagonists of Daisies grab their freedom through creating chaos. From the club to the train station, they are constantly causing disruption and toying with the men who obsess over them wherever they go. Towards the end of the film, the Maries happen upon a grand feast which has been set up. They go through it with glee, creating a whirlwind of half-eaten food, smashed plates and shattered glassware. They refuse to be controlled or defined by anyone but themselves.
The subject of Behind Every Good Man finds freedom in self-embodiment and the pursuit of her own form of happiness. She doesn’t just sit in the defiance of surviving as a Black trans woman in the USA in 1966 (though that would be more than enough). Instead, she demands the things that she wants like “a man that wants to go places, do things”, knowing her worth and power and accepting nothing below her station.
Diouana, the Black Girl in Sembene’s film, seeks freedom from the poverty that she and her family experience, through taking a job in the imperial core. When she gets over to France, and is increasingly confined in her new position, she has to find new routes of defiance. The center of that is her carved mask that she took with her from Senegal and the back and forth for her to keep it.
Each of these films has their own unique style that carries through the sense of freedom that is struggled over within the texts themselves. Who better to take on these ideas than two of the most revolutionary filmmakers of the era and someone who would go on to be heavily involved in the oncoming years of queer activism.
Daisies perhaps has the most brazen free filmmaking. Věra Chytilová refuses to be confined to a single style here, instead she moves from genre to genre. In some places it’s a silent film, in others it leans into war filmmaking, then into the illusionist-inspired style of Georges Méliès. By the end, she’s shot in basically every style that had been prominent from the birth of film up until 1966. Behind Every Good Man doesn’t shift constantly like Daisies, but it does have a flowing style that feels like it’s more about getting a sense of the energy and life of this woman and that is so much better done through seeing her dance in her room to her favorite records than forcing an awkward and probing talking head style interview.
In contrast to these two, Semebene’s filmmaking is more about a very intentional restriction. We move from the wide-open spaces of Senegal to the cramped apartment of the family Diouana works for. Where Chytilová’s shifts in and out of color emphasizes the freedom of her protagonists, the black and white of Sembene’s film accentuates the darkness of her skin against the blinding whiteness of the place which feels like less of a workplace and more of a cage.
Black Girl has the most extreme ending, resulting in the titular woman’s death as a result of how she was treated by her employers, all three films recognize the impermanence of freedom for these women while patriarchal structures still remain. Employment cannot liberate the women of the post-colonial nations while their “former” masters continue to hold the plundered wealth and power. By the end of the film, the Maries have to clean up the mess they made and commit to being good and hard-working girls, the world-bending make-believe must end and we return to the war images that opened the film. Even before that ending, there are moments of darkness, throughout the film. Behind Every Good Man’s has the reality of the world hit when she has a run-in with the police in some public toilets. As much as this specific encounter doesn’t go badly, there is still the sense that it could have, and a reminder that the potential violence of the state is always looming large.
But maybe for a little bit it’s worth indulging a little in the fantasy of the dinner table. A little bubble of freedom in the midst of it all where the biggest worry is which type of cake to try first.